Union Oyster House and The Merchant – Two Stops on the Dine Out Boston Tour

Posted September 3, 2014 by Cheryl Fenton in Downtown Boston
Union House's Clam Chowder

Boston no longer holds Restaurant Week. Now that I have your attention, I will continue that it has simply been renamed to Dine Out Boston. It still offers dozens of great restaurants in downtown Boston, with fixed price menus for three-course lunches or three-course dinners. I went exploring for a couple of new places.

Union Oyster House (41 Union Street): Opening in 1826, this is America’s oldest restaurant. Truth be told, I’ve never been. Before you take away my Mass license or slap me with a Frommer’s, this only means I was thrilled more than the average person. This is history in my own backyard.

Union House Fried Oyster

The fried oyster lunch. Photo Credit: Cheryl Fenton

Strolling through the doors, beams of natural light flowing over troughs of crushed ice and shucked oysters, it began as such a happy place. Then we were led to the very dark upstairs, with dim yellow lights, rough stucco burnt orange walls and model ships throughout. Sliding into a high back wooden bench, I felt like a Minute Man could pop in any minute. It just wasn’t cheerful like downstairs. With its Faneuil Hall location, we expected a tourist or two (or 15) along for lunch. That was the case, from French to Asian to British (minus the red coats).

Their famous chowder started the meal with nice flavor and enough clams even for my greedy needs. It wasn’t loaded up with potatoes like others. Since it’s actually its namesake, I was hoping my fried oysters entreé would deliver. It did. Those bivalves were huge and lightly battered. I filled up on the giant portion, a good thing because the glue-like side dish of mashed potatoes was inedible. The Indian pudding was a delicious, a warm corn meal mush heavy on the molasses and the whipped cream.

Wild Mushroom Risotto at The Merchant

Wild Mushroom Risotto at The Merchant. Photo Credit: Cheryl Fenton

The Merchant (60 Franklin Street): When you’re surrounded by dark wood, riveted leather chairs, banker’s lights, pinpoint chandeliers, you order a scotch. That’s just what you do. I, however, went with a beer—a German one with a faint citrus twist. As we looked around The Merchant, my dining companion said it had a gentleman’s club feel (not the stripper kind). With the amount of messenger bags, after-work banter and rolled up Oxford sleeves, I agreed.

First up was Corn Bisque with smoky bacon-potato relish. It was tasty but the bacon crumbles were chewier than expected (I’m a crunchy bacon gal). It could have been warmer, but was nice and sweet. My Wild Mushroom Risotto entreé was chock full of different fungi, fontina and herbs. It was decidedly too sweet, so they might cut back on the truffle honey.

Pan Seared Dayboat Cod from The Merchant

Pan Seared Dayboat Cod from The Merchant. Photo Credit: Cheryl Fenton.

When I tasted my companion’s pan-seared dayboat cod, I immediately became envious and potentially violent if he didn’t offer to split. The perfectly cooked fish rested in pool of delicious clam chowder. I assume the low heat came from a spicy infused oil drizzle, while pancetta gave it a wonderful smokiness. For dessert, I chose pannacotta–a wiggly Elderflower delight, tasty on its own but oddly covered in granola. My friend ordered pineapple sorbet, a very (I stress very) small globe of icy refreshment. Overall, the entire meal lacked presentation. When a dessert looks as if an eight-year-old tossed berries on it or a dish was just plopped into a bowl, it’s depressing. The cod however, well, that was just beautiful.

Dine Out Boston is a great way to become acquainted with local restaurants–a few faves you should already know (ahem) and maybe a few new stops along the way. The event is held semi-annually in March and August each year, so don’t be afraid to try something new…delicious comes in different packages.


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